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William Godwin on the need to simplify and reduce the power of the state (1793)

The English radical political philosopher and novelist William Godwin (1756-1836) thought that human beings were not naturally “vicious” but were made so by complex political institutions which rewarded predatory behavior:

But this necessity (to resort to violence) does not arise out of the nature of man, but out of the institutions by which he has already been corrupted. Man is not originally vicious. He would not refuse to listen, or to be convinced by the expostulations that are addressed to him, had he not been accustomed to regard them as hypocritical, and to conceive that, while his neighbour, his parent and his political governor pretended to be actuated by a pure regard to his interest, they were in reality, at the expence of his, promoting their own. Such are the fatal effects of (political) mysteriousness and complexity.

This remark leads us one step farther. Why should not the same distinction between commands and invitations, which we have just made in the case of national assemblies, be applied to the particular assemblies or juries of the several districts? At first, we will suppose, that some degree of authority and violence would be necessary. But this necessity does not arise out of the nature of man, but out of the institutions by which he has already been corrupted. Man is not originally vicious. He would not refuse to listen, or to be convinced by the expostulations that are addressed to him, had he not been accustomed to regard them as hypocritical, and to conceive that, while his neighbour, his parent and his political governor pretended to be actuated by a pure regard to his interest, they were in reality, at the expence of his, promoting their own. Such are the fatal effects of mysteriousness and complexity. Simplify the social system in the manner which every motive but those of usurpation and ambition powerfully recommends; render the plain dictates of justice level to every capacity; remove the necessity of implicit faith; and the whole species will become reasonable and virtuous. It will then be sufficient for juries to recommend a certain mode of adjusting controversies, without assuming the prerogative of dictating that adjustment. It will then be sufficient for them to invite offenders to forsake their errors. If their expostulations proved in a few instances ineffectual, the evils arising out of this circumstance would be of less importance, than those which proceed from the perpetual violation of the exercise of private judgment. But in reality no evils would arise, for, where the empire of reason was so universally acknowledged, the offender would either readily yield to the expostulations of authority; or, if he resisted, though suffering no personal molestation, he would feel so uneasy under the unequivocal disapprobation and observant eye of public judgment, as willingly to remove to a society more congenial to his errors.

The reader has probably anticipated me in the ultimate conclusion, from these remarks. If juries might at length cease to decide and be contented to invite, if force might gradually be withdrawn and reason trusted alone, shall we not one day find that juries themselves and every other species of public institution, may be laid aside as unnecessary? Will not the reasonings of one wise man be as effectual as those of twelve? Will not the competence of one individual to instruct his neighbours be a matter of sufficient notoriety, without the formality of an election? Will there be many vices to correct and much obstinacy to conquer? This is one of the most memorable stages of human improvement. With what delight must every well informed friend of mankind look forward to the auspicious period, the dissolution of political government, of that brute engine, which has been the only perennial cause of the vices of mankind, and which, as has abundantly appeared in the progress of the present work, has mischiefs of various sorts incorporated with its substance, and no otherwise to be removed than by its utter annihilation!

About this Quotation:

In 1792-93 when the French Revolution was still in its more liberal phase, the English radical William Godwin was contemplating what powers should a new national assembly have and what should its relation be with local political bodies (or “juries” as he called them) at the district level. He believed that complex and intrusive political bodies in the past had brought out the worst in human behaviour and that citizens had therefore concluded that politicians and their favored groups were hypocritical, self-serving, and ready to plunder the broader community whenever they had the chance. Under his new system, in which “the political machine,” “that brute engine” of ‘vice” and “mischief,” had been radically simplified (i.e. reduced in size and scope), there would be much less need for violence and coercion, there would be opportunities for more rational discussion, persuasion, and non-violent solutions to social problems. His hope was that eventually, this radically decentralized political power would become so “simplified” that it would lead to the “dissolution” and perhaps even “annihilation” of “political government” (as opposed to other forms of government).

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